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Key Leadership Behaviors That Improve Sales Force Performance

By: Dr. Tara Jones
Last updated 8/5/2010

No industry or business function has been immune to unprecedented conditions that have engulfed the economy. Most sales teams are faced with conditions they’ve never experienced before. New business conversations are tougher than ever. Targets are still high and, in many cases, redundancies mean there are fewer people to actually do the work. We’re often hearing sales teams say; “We’re expected to do more, with fewer resources.”

A typical sales team’s culture is numbers-driven, competitive, and achievement- focused. Teams are under constant pressure to perform at the highest level in order to meet hourly and daily targets. Combine this with the impact of the financial crisis, and it’s easy to see why individuals are focusing entirely on short-term results and their own performance rather than that of the team.

A Time for Change
The sales managers and leaders are under pressure, too. They are visible, vulnerable, and accountable for their teams’ performances. Rather than empowering individuals to make decisions for themselves, they are going for the short-term fix and resorting to telling people exactly what to do, resulting in mistakes and bad decisions.  This behavior is driving unhealthy competition among team members. Salespeople are protecting their turf, keeping their ideas and techniques to themselves, and pulling out all the stops to prove their worth to the organization.  They are holding onto their accounts, unwilling to share anything, with the fear that someone else could get a foot in the door and take over that account.

In sports, healthy competition is a part of the culture where thriving on pressure is critical.  Elite performers thrive on pressure because they work hard to develop the mental toughness to perform at consistently high levels. However, in business, the development of these skills is often neglected in favor of technical skill development. But pressure can do powerful things--it can help to raise performance or it can debilitate workers. 

Sales leaders are bombarded with the daily complexities of modern business, but their primary role is profoundly simple: they must create the conditions in which people can thrive. Leaders are accountable for developing high-performance environments for their teams.

Three Critical Leadership Behaviors
There are three leadership behaviors that are essential to creating an environment where high performance is both inevitable and sustainable—vision, challenge, and support.

• Leaders must develop and communicate a compelling vision that inspires people. Employees will be able to connect emotionally with this strong and meaningful vision. During these tough economic times, it is vital to an organization’s survival strategy. People need to understand what is expected from them and how it will contribute to achieving the vision. This will secure their commitment and engagement. In a sales environment this includes developing an understanding that, although short-term targets are important, they must also focus on the future, their development, long-term customer relationships, and innovation.

• Sales leaders must also challenge people to ensure they remain focused on delivering high performance. While we know that levels of challenge within sales teams are notoriously high, leaders should challenge individuals to work more collaboratively, sharing best practice and lessons learned regularly.  Challenge can also come by encouraging individuals to make decisions for themselves, to find solutions to their own challenges rather than relying on their leader or manager.

• The third key leadership behavior is support, often in low supply within competitive sales teams. Sales leaders need to ensure they individualize the support they provide.  They must understand how the pressurized environment affects people differently. Whether they are withdrawing under pressure, or running around like a chicken with its head cut off, leaders must support individuals appropriately. Feedback is also vital, both the motivational and the developmental. People need to know when they’ve done a good job and when there is room to improve. Both are fundamental for high performance. The sales leader needs to foster a feedback-hungry environment.  Support can also come in other forms, from training and development initiatives to one-on-one performance coaching.

People are an organization’s greatest asset and, as frontline salespeople continue to take the spotlight when it comes to financial targets, leaders must step-up to the plate and help them deliver.

 

About the Author(s)

Dr. Tara Jones Dr. Tara Jones is a principal consultant at Lane4 Management Group.